Parents are at a crossroads over whether God should be allowed in the classroom.
Hundreds of primary schools "close" during class time so religious teachers can come in and teach Bible-based values, and parents must opt out if they do not want their children to attend.
But a group of rationalists has launched a campaign to keep religion out of schools, saying it should be taught only as part of social studies or extra-curricular activities, and that prayer and Bible studies should ultimately be banned entirely.
A Sunday Star-Times reader poll found 49 per cent of respondents against religious studies in primary schools, and 43 per cent in favour, with 8 per cent undecided.
Many respondents expressed concerns about Christianity being given preference, about half saying a range of religions should be taught.
Auckland parent Bruce Hubbard said he was appalled when his 7-year-old stepdaughter's school introduced "evangelical-style" religious instruction, which reduced her to tears when she was told she could end up in hell. He has since opted out.
Jeff McClintock said it took five attempts before his daughter's school finally withdrew the 6-year-old from religious instruction. "They're not teaching about Christianity. They're trying to convert them. Parents are scared [that] if they withdraw their child will be the odd one out and might get picked on." His daughter now sits out the lessons.
The "opt-out" system did not work because parents learned about religious studies only when their children came home discussing the Bible, he said.
There was a public outcry in 2006 when the Ministry of Education proposed moving to an "opt-in" provision for religious education. After the uproar the Government shelved the idea and left it up to boards of trustees.
And religion in education remains a regular source of complaints to the Human Rights Commission. The concerns raised include discrimination against non-religious families and the role of karakia in schools.
The Churches Education Commission is the biggest provider of Christian instruction, covering 800 primary schools. Chief executive Simon Greening dismissed the suggestion teachers were converting children. "We're not trying to deceive anyone here, we're there to educate, not evangelise."
If parents were concerned children were being converted, he would speak with the religious studies teacher involved. "Sure we share Bible stories to illustrate our point, but it's value-based."
The values taught included respect, integrity and diversity. Often parents did not attend church but wanted their children to receive instruction at school.
The commission is not the educator at the school McClintock's daughter attends.
At the last census about half of Kiwis sais they were Christian. Nearly a third had no religion.
Keep Religion out of Schools campaign head Peter Harrison said religious studies should be extra-curricular, like karate or violin.
Religion classes were being promoted as values classes, he said, and parents who opted out had approached him with concerns their children felt punished. "It feels very much like a detention. We're talking about vulnerable children, 6 or 7, who are being ostracised by their friends for no reason. That's unacceptable," he said.
WHAT THE READERS SAY
"Religion should be a family choice and not for schools to decide."
"Children's minds are not mature enough at primary school to appreciate the meanings of religions."
"Religion has no place in education, especially state-funded secular education."
"We are a Christian country and we should teach Christianity to our young people."
"I have no issue with basic religion being taught. It may go a long way to teaching children the right way to treat other people."
- Sunday Star Times